The Columns

Great Trials as a Teaching Tool

— by on October 26th, 2009

In her 25 years as a journalist, Toni Locy spent plenty of time in courtrooms. She specialized in legal reporting and wrote about high-profile stories such as military hearings for suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay. No matter the case, Locy knows first-hand just how much the public loves a good trial.

“When I was covering a series of Mafia trials in Philadelphia and I’d go to my bank, I had to plan on spending an extra 30 minutes because one of the bank employees had recognized me from my byline and would grill me about every detail of the case,” she said. “Americans are fascinated by trials. Just look at TV – from the lawyers hosting talk shows to the ‘CSI’ syndrome. A big trial has a little bit of everything.”

Locy also believes that studying a trial – especially a really famous case – can be an effective way to teach about everything from history to politics to journalism to sociology. She has taken that belief into the classroom at Washington and Lee University, where she is Reynolds Professor of Legal Reporting

This fall, 13 students in Locy’s course, Covering Great Trials in History: The Impact of the Press and Public on Justice, are examining cases ranging from Socrates to Charles Manson to O.J. Simpson. She introduced the course last spring as a seminar for upper-class students. This time, her class is for first-years.

“What I’ve found is that these trials are great jumping-off places to talk about a range of ideas and issues. You can really look at this country’s history by looking at the big trials in various periods, because they will tell us where we were politically and socially, what were our hopes and fears. It all comes together in a high-profile trial,” she said. “Students are engaged with the material, and I’m finding that each of these trials can be used to tell a story.”

Locy did not cover any of the trials on her syllabus, but her experience clearly brings the class alive. She can offer a vivid account of a Senate hearing on the Patriot Act, for example, because she was in the hearing room.

“The advantage of my having covered trials or, in that case, congressional hearings, is that I can help the students understand how these often complex events come together,” she said. “I can explain to them why things are happening as they are and can point them to what they should be considering.”

As the students examined the Alger Hiss trials on a recent afternoon, they tried to imagine those trials being held in today’s 24-7 media environment (“There would be no time for any other story on cable,” one student opined), and they discussed how fear can overtake all other emotions during a crisis (“We don’t seem to learn from the past when it comes to our fears,” said another).

Locy has divided the course into various themes with different trials considered within those themes. For instance, she groups the Lindbergh-baby kidnapping trial with trials of Dr. Sam Sheppard and Charles Manson in a “Lights, Camera, Action” category based on the key role that media coverage played. Later this term, the class will study the trials of O.J. Simpson, Timothy McVeigh and the Chicago Black Sox under the rubric “Heroes and Villains.” Others trials under discussion will be the Scottsboro Boys, the Chicago 8, Nuremburg, My Lai, the Scopes “Monkey” Trial and Sacco and Vanzetti.

In addition to giving them some understanding of the trials themselves, Locy said she hopes that her approach to the course will teach students to adopt a journalist’s skepticism.

“I am teaching the course from a journalist’s perspective, even though this is very much a multidisciplinary course,” Locy said. “I want them to recognize the importance of being accurate and fair while always retaining that healthy dose of skepticism.

“It’s important that people learn not to get caught up in the spin as they consider what they see and hear in the reporting of these trials. I want them to consider whether the press, as it covers these cases, is serving the public, or, by virtue of sensationalism or superficial reporting, is encouraging a distrust of the legal system.”